Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Competency-Based Learning in Adams 12

Despite the endless diatribes from Arne Duncan about the need for "a longer school day, a longer school week, and a longer school year" for all, the idea of more tailored education meeting the individual needs of students is growing.  I've long opposed and argued against the idea of mandated "seat time," as declaring 1080 contact hours necessary for mastery or even competence is ridiculous.  Certainly, standards should exist for time in school - and Malcolm Gladwell reminds about the 10,000 necessary for mastery.  But the notion of "seat time" is changing, and districts are becoming innovative in terms of moving kids to mastery on a more flexible schedule.

For roughly three years now, Adams 12 District in Colorado has been operating on a competency-based education model.  Students move up in grade levels based on mastery of skills and content, not number of years or days or "contact hours" in school.  The plan appears to be working, as the students are showing improved performance in this notoriously low district.  A teacher's view has always been that if it works, it's good policy.  And it appears moving students at their level of mastery instead of a set yearly schedule is effective.  Certainly, there are downsides to this system, and it could be a logistical nightmare.  Yet, the benefits of moving kids based on competency are pretty clear.

Some downsides would be the challenging system of measurement and the logistics of scheduling.  And, of course, just because a student can come into my class and write one effective essay does not mean he won't benefit from the practice of writing ten more.  Mastery is built up over extensive hours of practice.  And the time spent in class discussion is every bit as valuable to our education as being able to display a measurable skill on demand.  Certainly, a minimum amount of class time is mandatory.  However, as students move up the levels, the specifics of seat time become less significant.  And, allowing students to move on to a higher level math whenever they're ready makes a lot of sense.  At the age of nine, my son was already "upstairs" at his school taking the middle school math classes simply because he was ready.  Of course, he was also emotionally mature enough to handle it.

The competency-based model of student advancement is certainly worth investigating and developing.  It has seemed to work most effectively at the lowest and highest levels.  Kids who struggle work at their pace and focus on accomplishment - not just getting by.  Kids at the top levels can take AP and CE classes to begin working on higher level education and even college degrees when they are ready.  Wherever it works, it should be implemented.

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